The Crystal Ball She Wished She’d Had

I read the comments on an article at ABC News called 5 Disturbing Things We Learned Today About Sandy Hook Shooter Adam Lanza and it’s very clear that most people think that those of us who have loved ones with serious mental illness should a) understand the depth and severity of their illness in all ways, at all times; b) deliver appropriate treatment in all ways and at all times; and c) basically read their minds and use our handy dandy crystal balls (they give us those at diagnosis, you know, so we will always be aware when someone in our family is going to do something unimaginable) to predict all possible behaviors so as to protect others from our “psycho” family members.

I read the comments on an article at ABC News called 5 Disturbing Things We Learned Today About Sandy Hook Shooter Adam Lanza and it’s very clear that most people think that those of us who have loved ones with serious mental illness should a) understand the depth and severity of their illness in all ways, at all times; b) deliver appropriate treatment in all ways and at all times; and c) basically read their minds and use our handy dandy crystal balls (they give us those at diagnosis, you know, so we will always be aware when someone in our family is going to do something unimaginable) to predict all possible behaviors so as to protect others from our “psycho” family members.

Naturally (because we live in the good old USA), we should do this on our own, in the privacy of our homes, with little or no help from our communities.

Good to know.

The consensus seems to be that Nancy Lanza is 100% responsible for what Adam Lanza did and not only did she deserve to die, but we should probably exhume her body and beat the crap out of her regularly. I mean, holy crap, I can Monday morning quarterback like anyone else, and some of Adam’s parents’ mistakes are pretty clear from where I sit (you couldn’t pay me enough to keep a gun in my house). But when you’re *in* a volatile situation, and you’re trying to make everything OK, and you’re trying to live life, and you’ve been to the ER and the doctor and you’ve called the police and you’ve dealt with the system and you’ve been blown off over and over and over again (usually without any hint of kindness) and the school won’t help and they call CPS on you and you know you’re all alone in the world, the fuck do people expect parents to do? I’ve heard it’s not cool to lock volatile and difficult children in the basement so hey, how about we quit flogging this mother and maybe create some solutions? Maybe, I dunno, improve the way we treat families with challenged children? Meet us at the ER with caring and treatment instead of reports to CPS? Stop telling us we caused it with our shitty parenting? Shorten some of those damn waiting lists so when we’re in crisis, we don’t have to wait weeks or months for help? Because this has been a banner week in my Facebook timeline as far as parents begging for treatment for their kids (a day in the ER with no help here, a call to the police who declined to help with a violent child there, three CPS reports, and of course the relentless drumbeat of schools that will NOT follow BIPs and IEPs as they were written) and really, we can’t have it both ways. We can’t vilify these parents AND expect them to make everything OK on their own.

People who feel all-powerful as parents have never been up against shit like this. I promise. With the weight of my own experience and my dozens of friends who are parenting kids with MI, I tell you, we cannot handle this on our own. Please stop asking to do magic.

I have no idea what Adam Lanza needed, and I have no idea if his parents were in some kind of denial about his issues. I have a pretty damn good idea, though, that even they knew what he needed and tried to get it, it didn’t exist.

So hey, crucify Adam Lanza and his parents if that helps you sleep at night, but the fact is that if your brain or that of someone you love goes kerflonk, you might meet our mental health care system up close and personal, and you might find out that it’s not a system at all. You might find out that banging on doors year after year after year makes a person pretty tired, and advocating for someone, no matter how much you love them, can defeat you. I hope you don’t find out, but you might. And then you’ll be stranded here with the rest of us, without crystal balls, without magic wands, without super powers of any kind. You would just be an ordinary person doing the best you can in extraordinary circumstances, and like ordinary people do, you might fuck it up completely.

Because you know what? Flawed, ordinary people screw up, and if there’s no one there to catch your mistake, something terrible could happen. Something so awful, people will flog you after your death. And to think, once upon a time, Nancy Lanza was a young woman in love, and she wanted to have a baby. She did her best by that baby, and it wasn’t nearly good enough.

And look at the cost. Look how high the price, for leaving her (and millions like her) alone, and for preserving our right to own weapons. The cost is incalculable. Unimaginable. Inconceivable. It doesn’t have to be this way, and yet this is the way we have decided it will be. I hope we change our minds very soon because there’s not a damn thing in the world that justifies the circumstances that lead to rooms full of dead children.

Sanctimonious Concern

There are times to call police, but there are also times to speak our concerns to each other, and there are times to check our 21st century, first-world paranoia and let it go.

In 1994, I lived in a rental house not much bigger than a breadbox with my then-husband and our baby. Next door was an even smaller rental house, barely the size of a garage.

The young woman (and I do mean young; I was 23 and she was even younger) who lived in that tiny house had a two-year-old son who seemed to perpetually surprise his mother with his presence. We chatted occasionally in our common backyard and I was left with the impression that she was flummoxed by the babyness of him. Now that he spoke and walked upright, he still hadn’t become a reasonable person, and that startled her.

One afternoon when my then-husband came in from work, he said, “You have to call CYFD on that girl next door. Her kid is playing in the car.”

I went out front and sure enough, there was my neighbor’s two-year-old son, sitting in the driver’s seat of her car, turning the wheel back and forth and making those driving noises that come pre-installed on some children. I scooped him up and carried him into the house and found his mother in the kitchen, cooking dinner.

“He was playing in the car,” I told her. “That’s not safe. Actually, he really shouldn’t be out there without someone to watch him since there’s no fence.”

“Oh,” she said, looking concerned. “I thought it would be OK. I told him to stay in the yard.”

“He’s too little,” I said, “and a car isn’t a safe place to play. He could accidentally release the brake, or he could get locked in there.”

She was embarrassed. “I’m sorry,” she said, apologizing because she felt bad even though she hadn’t hurt me.

“Well, he’s fine, and it’s all good. Just remember to keep the car locked, and let me know if you need help watching him!”

I went back to my house, praying that I had done the right thing. Maybe she did need professional guidance. She seemed so profoundly clueless. On the other hand, her son was well-fed, happy, and had never had any injuries that I’d seen. Our houses were very close and I never heard any crying beyond what’s normal for a child that small.

After our conversation, I never saw my neighbor’s son outside without his mother’s supervision again and I became more and more comfortable with my decision.

Across my adult years, I’ve had lots of interaction with the child protection system, mostly as a mandated reporter but also as a victim of malicious reporting. I’m also a parent and an observer of trends and what I’ve noticed is this: people are much quicker than they used to be to call police about suspected child mistreatment.

Is that good? Yes and no. I’m happy to wave good-bye to the days when what happened to children was nobody’s business but those children’s parents. Kids whose parents hurt them or fail to keep them safe deserve better, and we need a system with the power to intervene on their behalf.

On the other hand, 911 is no one’s personal nuisance reporting number, and child protective services is not the place to call when there is mild concern, or when a parent does something that doesn’t seem like the best possible decision. I think social media drives some of this because I’ve seen (haven’t we all seen?) ridiculous statements like parents who feed their kids junk food are ruining those children’s health and should have them taken away, or women who have planned c-sections are abusive, on and on. Every parenting choice that seems less-than-ideal to the observer gets the “abusive” placard hung around its neck.

I remembered all my interactions with cops and child protective services yesterday, when I read this piece at Salon about a mother who left her child in the car for a few minutes on a 50 degree day while she ran into a store to buy that child a pair of headphones. The legal problems caused by the bystander who took video of her car and her child and subsequently called police have dominated her family’s life for two years.

This represents a major cultural shift that I’ve witnessed in my 20+ years as a parent. When my eldest children were very young, in the mid-90s, I didn’t think much of leaving my children in the car under the conditions that it was not hot out, I would be no more than a couple minutes, and I could see my car from inside the store. By the mid-2000s, when my youngest son was a toddler and pre-schooler, I felt much more anxious about doing that. I was not more concerned about kidnapping, or someone stealing my car with my child inside, or any of the supposed risks that always taking my children with me are meant to ameliorate. No, I became worried about a bystander who might call the police about “neglect.”

I did once call the police about a child left alone in a car. It was nearly 100 degrees and I stood ready to smash a window if the baby (who was sweaty, but was also laughing at the goofy faces I was making at her through the window) seemed in distress. Thankfully the police arrived less than a minute after I called and they popped the lock and put the baby in an air conditioned police car until an ambulance arrived.

There are times to call police, but there are also times to speak our concerns to each other, and there are times to check our 21st century, first-world paranoia and let it go. The police, courts, and child protection agencies really do have better things to do than indulge our sanctimonious concern over how other people are parenting. Resources are limited and children who are being beaten, molested, or starved, need those resources devoted to them. There are children out there who are being left alone for hours, not minutes.

When we see a child in immediate danger, of course we should call 911, and when we suspect genuinely neglectful or abusive behavior, it’s time to notify child protective services. In the meantime, I think we all need to get a grip, because most of the kids are OK, and most of the parents, fallible though we are, are doing just fine.

You Chose

If only we were half as powerful as we believe ourselves to be.

You took no medications and consumed nothing artificial during pregnancy. Your baby is pure and the least a mother can do is sacrifice her comfort for 9 months.

You consulted with your health care provider during pregnancy and chose to continue your anti-depressant. Your baby needs to have a mother who is well and healthy.

You chose cautiously. Nothing bad is ever going to happen to your child.

*          *          *

You chose disposable diapers because your baby needs your attention. How can you stay focused on her if you’re scraping poop and washing diapers?

You chose cloth because no baby of yours is going to sit in some a chemical-filled, disposable paper “garment.”

You chose elimination communication because your baby deserves better than to sit in his own waste.

You chose carefully. Nothing bad is ever going to happen to your child.

*          *          *

Your baby slept in her own crib right from the beginning. Babies need to learn to self-soothe, to be independent.

You co-slept, your baby nestled between his parents all night long. Babies are small and vulnerable and need their parents’ presence so they know they are safe in the world.

You chose thoughtfully. Nothing bad is ever going to happen to your child.

*          *          *

Your toddler rode in a stroller or wore a harness until he was four. No child of yours is going to get lost or hit by a car because her parents didn’t restrain her properly.

Your toddler was free to walk whenever he wanted. No child of yours is going to have his freedom curtailed because his parents didn’t keep their attention focused on him.

You chose judiciously. Nothing bad is ever going to happen to your child.

*          *          *

You took your family to church every week because children should be grounded in a faith tradition so they have a moral compass and a sense of connection.

You avoided organized religion because children should be allowed to explore a variety of world views and choose faith (or not) according to their preferences.

You chose scrupulously. Nothing bad is ever going to happen to your child.

*          *          *

You were a firm disciplinarian with your children. You had high expectations and you issued unpleasant consequences when your children fell short.

You avoided all forms of punishment with your children, preferring them to learn from the natural consequences of their behavior.

You chose conscientiously. Nothing bad is ever going to happen to your child.

*          *          *

You taught your child everything about sex. You taught him about protection, pregnancy prevention, and consent. You taught him about respect, kindness, and risk.

You taught your child that sex is something she absolutely may not even consider until after she is married. You taught her that sex is sacred and that she must protect her purity no matter what.

You chose morally. Nothing bad is ever going to happen to your child.

*          *          *

You kept your children at home, arranging for all their playdates to be supervised by you. You spoke to their teachers often, visited their classrooms, and joined them on all their outings.

You let your kids run the neighborhood with friends and sent them to the neighborhood school. They went to the park, the swimming pool, and the movies accompanied by people their own age.

You chose prudently. Nothing bad is ever going to happen to your child.

*          *          *

You saw a person at the grocery store, or heard a story on the TV news, or read about a tragedy on the internet, and thank God nothing like that is ever going to happen to your child.

If only his parents had been moral. If only her mom was conscientious. If only his dad had been more careful.

*          *          *

If only we were half as powerful as we believe ourselves to be before something bad happens to our children.

For Kelly Thomas

Kelly Thomas was beat and beat and beat by Fullerton police officers on July 5, 2011 and while the cops beat him he cried for his dad and God and his mom and they beat him some more until he stopped moving.

I’m compelled to put some words here in honor of Kelly Thomas, some kind of expression of solidarity with his family. I want to express my outrage at yesterday’s acquittal of the men who murdered him, but my feelings are big and language seems too small. I went to sleep last night thinking of the Thomas family, woke up this morning thinking of him and praying a prayer about the men who killed Kelly that I’m pretty sure God doesn’t honor.

So I will tell you this small sliver, this little piece, and it is this: Kelly Thomas is Kelly Thomas. He is described in the news as a homeless man or a mentally ill man or a man with schizophrenia. Those things, those descriptors, are all true, but Kelly Thomas was Kelly Thomas and he was a person and he was beloved of his family and those things are also true.

The surveillance video shows that Kelly Thomas was beat and beat and beat by Fullerton police officers on July 5, 2011 and while the cops beat him he cried for his dad and God and his mom and they beat him some more until he stopped moving. When Kelly was finally unconscious, lying on the hot pavement, handcuffed, his blood pooling around him, the police officers began the anxious process of creating a suitable narrative. “He was really fighting,” one says. “He was definitely on something,” says another. Yes, yes, true. A person in the process of being beaten to death will fight. Terror is a powerful drug.

And they—those police officers, all six of them who got on top of, beat, pistol whipped, tased, and ultimately murdered a terrified, unarmed man—slept in their beds last night. They kissed their children goodnight.

The last time Ron and Cathy Thomas kissed their son goodnight was July 10, 2011, when they removed him from life support.

Think about that, because I can’t stop thinking about it: their babylove, the child for whom Cathy and Ron Thomas stayed up too late on Christmas Eve wrapping presents, and who they taught to ride a bike, who they took to the doctor when he had an earache and later, when he had other, more mysterious symptoms, and they fought and struggled and loved and tried to rescue him when schizophrenia grabbed him and wrestled him away from them and it was they who had to make the choice. It was they who signed the papers that authorized the hospital to turn off the machines. Mom and Dad, who couldn’t protect their son, who will live with the image of his devastated and dying body forever. They, who sat in the courtroom every day, listened to the audio of their son crying out for them, and finally listened to the acquittal of the men who hurt him unto death.

I kissed my own son goodnight, too. My little boy, who is terrified of anyone he doesn’t know touching him, who sometimes acts in inexplicable and frightening ways, who often doesn’t understand what is happening around him. My boy, whose illness sometimes makes him seem weird and unlikeable…how, how, how to make the world understand that he is my beloved son? That we, the parents, siblings, spouses, children, and friends of people with mental illness know them to be people? They are not the monsters in the movies or the villains in TV shows or amusing pop-culture characters but people.

Kelly Thomas was not disposable. He deserved so much better. His family deserved better, and all of us who live with or love someone with severe mental illness deserve better.

There are no disposable people, but we sure as hell act as if there are.

Please visit this link to sign a petition to the federal government, requesting they investigate the death of Kelly Thomas.

Come As You Are

For us, the believers, the Jesus-people, the bible is not a book of history and rules. Our God is not a God of hate.

I am a Christian.

It’s hard for me to say that in a public forum, just those four words. Usually, if it comes up in conversation, I push out a dozen or more words in a rush: I’m a Christian, but I’m a peace and justice Christian, a love everyone Christian, and if you want to know about my faith I’d love to tell you, but if you don’t want to to talk about it, that’s cool too.

Here is the one of the saddest things I have ever heard after I reveal that I follow Jesus: Wow, I never would have guessed you were a Christian. You seem so nice.

How’s that for a punch in the guts?

I’m not actually that nice. I have a terrible temper, a tendency toward resentment, and a penchant for blue language that’s well documented here on my blog. I’ve done drugs, drunk alcohol to excess, stolen, gossiped, hurt people, taken more than my share, cheated, lied, and been, in general, a deeply flawed human being.

Flawed like Paul, who wrote in Romans 7:15, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” Broken, screwed up, sinful. Human.

What’s “nice” about me is, I know I’m not better than anyone. (Actually, sometimes I think I’m better than someone, and sometimes I feel inferior. This humility thing is a challenge.) That’s what people experience as niceness from Christians: if we don’t start beating them over the head with our big, leather-bound, gold-embossed bibles and telling them how utterly screwed they are, how messed up, evil, and doomed, they experience us as nice.

Folks, something’s wrong when people hear the word Christian and their first instinct is to duck.

Some Christians are dominating the media with the message that our faith is all about following a moral script, and that most of the items on that script have to do with what we do with our genitals, and when, and with whom. How sad, to reduce our collective story to one of penises and pregnancies. Our story began when Abraham went on a journey and continues now, a story of extravagant love, the tale of a God who pursues us, in all our brokenness, throughout history. God is not waiting for us to get better, or to get perfect. God is not waiting for anything.

For us, the believers, the Jesus-people, the bible is not a book of history and rules. Our God is not a God of hate. We’re living in a story that began with the people in the bible and continues now. The bible is alive, our faith is alive, and we are privileged to participate, not as servants but as the sons and daughters of God. We are Deborah, David, Abraham, Mary, Paul, James, Rebekah, Abigail. Flawed, and beloved of the divine.

We don’t have all the answers. We don’t even know most of the questions. That’s OK, because Jesus never said, Go forth and be perfect in every way, and then force all the other people to be perfect in the ways that you deem right, making certain nobody ever does anything with their genitals that seems icky to you!

Not in my bible. Jesus said, First, love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and next, love each other. (I paraphrased that from Matthew 22.)

Love. A big party, a festival of love, and everyone is invited. Everyone. Pull up a chair and sit down. This is the ultimate come-as-you-are.